With a primary a week after Fat Tuesday and a possible runoff in the middle of spring break, local election officials are having an unusually difficult time finding clerks, supervisors and inspectors to work the polls during the 2020 elections that will determine several local, state and federal offices.
Last week, Probate Judge Don Davis said his election division was still 161 poll workers short of the 1,685 needed to operate Mobile County’s 88 voting precincts during the March 3 primary. He said the problem has also been compounded at some precincts where multiple positions remain unfilled.
“When you consider we have to find 1,685, we’re actually doing fairly well at this point, but the difficulty is we have nine polls where there are still more than five vacancies,” Davis said. “We’ve touched base with those poll inspectors, and they’re all having major difficulties filling their spots this year.”
In Alabama, non-municipal elections are coordinated by the local probate court. So far, the Mobile County Commission has already set aside close to $30,000 to facilitate this year’s elections and has put over $1 million into new voting machines that’ll be used for the first time during the March 3 primary.
Workers at polls throughout Mobile County serve as either clerks, supervisors or inspectors on election day, where they assist voters, help guard against fraud and oversee the counting and distribution of election results. They’re paid anywhere from $150 to $200 a day depending on the role they play.
While a lack of interested — and qualified — persons to fill those positions isn’t unheard of, Davis said this year has been particularly challenging due to the timing of the elections. The March 3 primary is a week after Fat Tuesday, and officials have historically used the week before elections for poll worker training.
Plus, if a head-to-head runoff is necessary to decide any of the races, it will be held on March 31 during the Alabama Education Association’s scheduled spring break for local teachers and students. Under state law, election officials have to use the same poll workers in a runoff who were employed in the primary.
That means workers have to be willing and able to commit to serving during both elections.
“We do a lot of our training the week before, because you can’t do it too far out from an election or some people could forget things. They only do this once every couple of years,” Davis said. “There are citizens who just aren’t interested in being a poll worker during Mardi Gras … They’ve got other interests.”
Like midterm primaries, Alabama’s presidential primaries used to be held in June, but that changed in 2008 when lawmakers moved the elections to give the state more impact on the presidential primary. It joined more than a dozen other states that hold caucuses or elections on “Super Tuesday.”
Mardi Gras season has complicated early primaries on Alabama’s Gulf Coast before.
In 2008, the first year the primary was held on Super Tuesday, state officials scheduled the contest on Mardi Gras. After local lawmakers raised concerns, the legislature relaxed absentee voting rules and allowed for an early voting day a week ahead of the primary. But, Mobile County spent around $80,000 advertising those special voting procedures — additional expenses that weren’t reimbursed for years.
Typically, poll workers are supposed to be appointed from the precincts they vote in, which Davis said is an additional “ballot security measure.” However, the local appointment board, which consists of the probate judge, circuit clerk and sheriff, can bypass that requirement in emergencies. That said, poll workers still have to be registered voters and residents of the county in which they are serving.
Davis said he didn’t think the other members of the board would have an issue declaring an emergency in this case, but he also asked County Commissioners last week about the possibility of county employees serving as poll workers — something he said many have done over the years on their own.
Commission President Jerry Carl has since asked department heads to inquire amongst their employees, though the county’s legal team is still looking into the legality of the county paying employees to fill those vacancies. However, lead attorney Jay Ross said there’s nothing stopping employees from voluntarily taking a day off to work the polls if they’re getting paid through the normal per diem process.
Carl and his fellow commissioners all said last week they were willing to help spread the word about the need for additional poll workers. Election officials expressed gratitude, but Davis’s chief of staff, Mark Erwin, said he’d ideally like to see the positions filled with people nominated through precinct inspectors.
“We ran into a similar situation in 2018 and we went on the radio to discuss it and were flooded with folks and, in some cases, ended up appointing some people that turned out to be not who we would have preferred in a poll setting,” Erwin said. “In fact, in a couple of situations, people even had to be removed midday that weren’t really capable of doing the job or that had become disruptive.”
For those who are interested in applying to be a poll worker, more information is available at probate.mobilecountyal.gov/pollworkerreg.htm.
In addition to recruiting poll workers, probate officials have also been trying to spread the word about Mobile County’s voter registration deadline, which will also be impacted by the 2020 Mardi Gras season.
Because the normal deadline for voter registration — Feb. 17 — falls on Presidents’ Day, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s office has set the deadline for registrations using the paper process to Saturday, Feb. 15. However, Mobile County doesn’t include Presidents’ Day on its holiday calendar so employees can, instead, take off the Monday and Tuesday of Mardi Gras.
As a result, all Mobile County offices will be open and operational on Presidents’ Day and residents will still be able to register to vote or update their voter registration through Feb. 17. More information on online registration is also available at sos.alabama.gov/alabama-votes.
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